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A Comeback for the Ages: Giving Timbers nightmares is a long-held tradition

This week marks the 38th anniversary of the greatest reversal of fortune in Sounders history, when the NASL lads rallied from two goals down in the final 22 minutes to beat Portland.

David Butler scored two of Seattle's late second-half goals (Frank MacDonald Collection)
David Butler scored two of Seattle's late second-half goals (Frank MacDonald Collection)

Where else would a 17-year-old, soccer-crazed kid find himself on a Saturday evening in spring but in the basement of his grandmother's house.

If there was a party, it could wait. Besides, the good ones are just getting started around 10. That would provide ample time to arrive fashionably late. But enough about that and back to the basement.

I loved my Grandma Sadie dearly. Loved mowing and edging her expansive lawn and joining her for lunch afterward on Saturdays. However I must confess that when I returned for dinner later this particular night, it was mostly for the cable.

Yes, honestly cable TV was the attraction. It was 1977 and this new innovation that provided a clear picture and double the number of channels -- like 10 altogether -- was only available in Centralia's downtown area, and not up on Seminary Hill where I lived. Located approximately halfway between Seattle and Portland on Interstate 5, Centralia was ideally situated to get both cities' local affiliates via Craig McCaw's (look him up) fledgling cable company. Up on the hill, our rabbit ears arrangement afforded only a grainy glimpse of the Seattle channels.

In those days very little soccer was played in a rural outback such as Centralia. We had formed a soccer club at the high school, scheduling games with the much more formidable varsity teams in Olympia. I also played for the men's team sponsored by KITI Radio (it's Super Chicken!). In summer I'd play with ponytailed students at The Evergreen State College near the state capital.

Televised soccer was extra rare. Besides Soccer Made in Germany, a Sunday staple on PBS, a half-dozen Sounders games were shown on Channel 11, plus a few more NASL games on syndicated TVS.

Not yet permitted by parents to drive the 90 miles up to the Kingdome, the next best place to be on this particular Saturday eve was watching the Sounders-Timbers game on the Portland channel. And my grandma, despite missing Lawrence Welk, didn't mind watching a bit.

As it turns out, this particular match on April 30, 1977 was not to be missed. There's never been another outcome like it during the 40-plus years of local professional soccer. To this day, it is the archive video I truly covet more than any other. And now I'll tell you why.

A Cascadia Classic

First off, of course, it's Seattle-Portland. Say no more.

More important is the narrative of relentless pursuit, competitive toughness and the reminder that one man can make a difference. Yes, it's sports, and sports provide a perfect classroom and test lab for the real deal, which is life.

Going into the game, the Sounders seemed a club that could go in any direction. They were under a new coach, the ever-popular Jimmy Gabriel, previously assistant coach and captain. Following three very successful seasons, they had started the '77 season winless in three outings. Worse, Seattle had not scored a single goal.

It was typical in NASL for teams to scratch and claw early on. Once European seasons ended in early May, reinforcements soon arrived. Such was the case for the Sounders, who awaited four eventual starters.

Portland was in a similar state. In goal the Timbers would go with 21-year-old amateur Jim Gorsek, making his second (and as it turned out, last) start of his rookie season. Up front, however, their tandem up top was formidable.

Clyde Best, the center forward, was a beast. The big Bermudan stood 6-foot-2 and packed over 190 pounds behind that broad chest and shoulders. Nimble, too. He'd played most of his career for West Ham before moving to Tampa Bay. Best departed the Rowdies along with Scottish winger Stewart Scullion.

Down Go the Sounders

Seattle possessed a pair of solid center backs in Mike England and David Gillett, but Best freed himself to send Scullion's low cross past Tony Chursky in the 36th minute. On the hour mark Best doubled the lead on a header.

At this stage most Sounders fans had probably given up. I know I had. Seattle was down two goals and the players' heads were dropping. Then something changed.

Gabriel, who had effectively retired after the '76 season at age 36, pulled off his track suit and inserted himself into the fray seconds after the second Portland goal.

Afterwards he told The Seattle Times: "When Portland scored its second goal I thought I might go in and create some damage in the air. Butler got his first goal in 200 years. Then things started going."

He added, "When we were two down I thought we were beaten. We had lost the midfield and we were losing at the back."

Insert Vitamin G

Indeed, Dave Butler pulled the Sounders a goal back. Paul Crossley crossed to the far post where Gabriel nodded it on. The goal ended 363 scoreless minutes.

Shortly after Gabriel had come on, before he really was loose, he went hard into a tackle in his typical all-in fashion. It energized the crowd and his players. It also strained Gabriel's hamstring. He came up limping but battled on.

Butler told The Times: "It was a bit of inspiration for us when Gabriel came on."

In the 74th minute Crossley was pushed over in the box and subsequently put away his penalty kick. It was all even, 2-2. The crowd of 25,000 was now roaring, the Kingdome trapping the noise and the players were now feeling it.

With less than five minutes left, Butler did it again. Gabriel helped keep the ball in the Timbers' end. Steve Buttle crossed, David Gillett brought it down and Butler completed the glorious comeback.

One for the Ages

I remember being alternately disbelieving and euphoric, having never before seen such a turnaround in soccer. As it turned out, it was even more rare than I realized.

That match, now 38 years ago, remains the only Seattle game in which the Sounders came from at least two goals down to win in regulation, and doing so against an arch-rival, no less.

At the time, the original Rocky was the newly-minted Best Picture and its "Gonna Fly Now" anthem was becoming ubiquitous in attempting to uplift all those within earshot. I wasn't at the Dome that evening, but perhaps it was playing on the stadium loudspeakers after the final whistle. If not, it should've been. The film was fantasy; this result was unscripted reality.

One man made the difference. Out of frustration, out of options, Gabriel imposed his sheer will on the game and through one part ability and two parts inspiration he brought about a reversal of fortune.

Years and years later, I interviewed Gabriel. It was evident that not only did the fairytale ending affect me, it was seared into Gabriel's memory, as well as many others, as well.

Just the Beginning

The fight exhibited in that second half was evident on a sustained basis for the second half of that season. The Sounders would win 11 of 14 to reach the Soccer Bowl final versus Portland.

I consider myself a hopeful person, someone who believes that by keeping your head and working through the worst of times, can pave a path to better times.

Since that evening with Grandma Sadie I've been fortunate to see, in person, some climactic comebacks. Most vivid are the Seattle Pacific semifinal win in 1993 and the Sounders at Kansas City in 2011 that featured two goals after the 90th minute.

To this day, however, nothing trumps that '77 triumph over the Timbers. Someday, though, someday it will happen. And the reason it will happen is because of belief.

So the next time your team goes down two goals, whether in the stands or on the pitch, your belief that it can happen is actually the first step in making it happen.

Frank MacDonald is a Seattle soccer journalist and historian. This story first appeared on his website and has been republished here with his permission.

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